The Executive Club: Entrepreneur draws on love of art
An example of the sorts of things that energise angels. In this article Enterprise Angel’s active member, Daryl French talks about his involvement with a Locus Research and Design in Tauranga which provides advice on commercialisation.
Timothy Allan has turned a childhood love of drawing and painting into one of New Zealand’s most successful industrial research and design firms.
Tauranga-headquartered Locus Research and Design, founded 12 years ago, advises companies and entrepreneurs on how to take ideas from concept through to commercialised products.
Locus has also become a key element in the Bay of Plenty’s export-focused business community. It is, with Plus Group, part of Newnham Park, one of the three key partners in WNT Ventures, the innovative collaboration between Tauranga companies that was one of only three government-backed business technology incubators announced by the Government earlier this year.
“With WNT Ventures, we’ll do the pre-incubation and feasibility work, because we’re well-equipped to do that,” said Mr Allan, who was named a Fellow of the Designers Institute in 2010 for his services to sustainable design in New Zealand.
“As a company, our clear differentiator is the focus on product development. We draw on science, engineering, design, all sorts of different disciplines and industries. Our core competency is getting a product from A to Z in the best shape possible.”
Daryl French, a board member of Tauranga start-up funding group Enterprise Angels and an investor/director, works closely with Mr Allan on screening and doing due diligence on new start-ups.
“Tim is a very astute individual,” said Mr French.
“Locus as a company is a really integral part of helping other companies in the Bay of Plenty to bring products to market. They’re rapidly becoming key in the overall developing entrepreneurial culture we’re getting in Tauranga. I see them as having a very big part to play and I’d like to think they will continue to grow. They are an asset.”
Mr Allan migrated to New Zealand as a 9-year-old with his South African father and Kiwi mother and the family settled in Hamilton. They arrived in 1982 during the Springbok tour protests and, said Mr Allan, “I lost my South African accent in two weeks”.
After primary school at Marist Brothers, he went to Hamilton Boys High and began developing a childhood love of painting and drawing that saw him pick up commercial illustration and graphic design work when he was still at college. After finishing high school, he did a one-year visual arts diploma at the then Waikato Polytechnic, then won admission to the four-year course at Wellington Polytechnic.
“At the time it was the best design school in New Zealand. And the great thing about the Wellington course was that it had a first general year where you got exposed to everybody going into every discipline,” he said.
Mr Allan’s decision to focus on industrial design was triggered by seeing the complex finished 3D objects being created by final year students. He was also mentored by Dame Doreen Blumhardt, the ceramicist and potter who was a key figure in introducing arts and crafts to the New Zealand education system, and who died recently in her 90s. He used to visit Dame Doreen regularly during his polytechnic years and help her with heavy work.
“She was an amazing person, and an incredible teacher and artist in her own right,” he said.
When it came time to do his own final-year project, he visited the Christchurch headquarters of Macpack, founded by Dave McIntyre, and worked closely with the firm in developing a technical harness system with a series of packs that hung off it.
“I was really interested in research and development and they were fantastic in agreeing to do a product with me,” he said. “I had to test it, prototype it, make it, re-test it, re-prototype it, and then they helped me make an actual functioning prototype.”
It was an incredible learning experience to see how really good companies were run. Timothy Allan
Macpack offered him a job when he graduated, but he decided to stay on in Wellington and accepted an offer from Te Papa, then in its set-up phase, to work with old friend Adam Ellis on the Mountain to the seas, and Geological exhibits.
After completing the Te Papa projects, he came to Tauranga to take up a job with Design Mobel, the award-winning furniture and bed-making company set up by Dave MacFarlane, which the founder sold to Sleepyhead in 2008.
“It was a really cool company to work for and Dave was an amazing guy,” said Mr Allan. “I got to cut out my own track there and grew the design team. It was an incredible learning experience to see how really good companies were run. That really set a benchmark.”
In 2002, Mr Allan set up Locus Research with support from Mr MacFarlane in the form of design work in the first year to help him get started.
“I employed the first person and then it went on from there and it’s been a pretty steady development,” he said.
The company began in Tauranga, then moved to a larger office in Mount Maunganui, before its recent move to custom-built premises in Newnham Park, Te Puna, the base for Steve Saunders’ Plus Group and Rob Jeffries’ group of companies, as well as Halala Vanilla.
Locus Research now has a staff of seven. Mr Allan retains ownership of the company, but envisages eventually moving to a partnership structure.
Locus Research works on both a fee-based and a cost recovery plus equity stake basis, and has worked with companies throughout New Zealand as well as some international work. A major focus is on the research and development side of product development, and the company advises on all facets of commercialising a product, from sales channels to manufacturing processes.
The company works with large corporates, as well as new start-ups such as Balex Marine’s award-winning Automatic Boat Loader.
“We’ve got a very broad suite of skills which works well for when a company is in start-up mode,” said Mr Allan.
“We try and help people get through the eye of the needle.”
Commercial culture key
Tim Allan says that Locus Research operates with a flat management structure.
“Culture is critical,” he said. “You want people who can work with each other and we’ve been very lucky in getting people who are willing to collaborate.”
Mr Allan said a lot of successful management was about ensuring staff were doing work that was interesting.
“I’ve always been a big driver on quality of work. If you get the quality of work right, the other things fall into line.”
He acknowledged that it could be challenging to get the right people, especially in Tauranga.
“Being a smaller company attracting the right people is not straightforward,” he said. “But lately we seem to have managed to find people locally that are bang on for our needs.”
Darryl French, an Enterprise Angels board member who works closely with Locus, said Mr Allan had built an extremely-talented group of designers and marketers around him.
“Tim’s got strong opinions and that’s what I like about him,” he said. “We don’t always agree, but I’ve never got to the stage where we haven’t been able to find the middle ground. And that’s unusual. People who have good scientific knowledge can sometimes be a bit immovable, but Tim’s different.”
Mr French also noted Mr Allan had evolved from a designer and product creator to someone who truly understood the issues of moving into the commercial space, such as cost of manufacture and getting a product to market.
“He understands all the technical stuff, but now he can sit down and have the conversations on whether a product makes commercial sense.”
On bike if time
Tim Allan says he tries to devote his non-working time to his family, partner Paula Zinzan, a senior environmental officer with Trustpower, and children Ruby, 5, and Isaac, 7.
However, he is an enthusiastic mountain biker, when he gets the time.
Mr Allan remains very much an artist and is a keen photographer.
“I’ve always had a few projects bubbling away at home,” he said.
“But it’s quite hard to find the time and the creative energy, because my job is pretty demanding on the creative front.”